Review: Scottish Ballet - Romeo and Juliet - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 14 - 17 May 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 15 May 2014

Scottish Ballet 'Romeo & Juliet' Photo: Christina Riley

Performance reviewed: 14 May

Krzysztof Pastor made his Romeo & Juliet for Scottish Ballet back in 2008, although this was my first encounter with his radical rethinking of Shakespeare’s story and Prokofiev’s music. Given that he is standing on the shoulders of the greatest choreographers of the twentieth century in tackling this subject, I must applaud his vision as a bold step in another direction, which – by and large – pays a handsome dividend.

The most appealing of his inspirations is to have set the story in a time-travelling arc through recent Italian history: commencing in the 1930s before moving onto the ’50s and concluding in the later decades of the twentieth century. We know this not only through the illustrative costume designs of Tatyana van Walsum but in the backdrop of short, sharp film clips, first showing grainy sepia images of pre-war Italian street scenes; then colourful pictures of a new generation of Italians riding Vespas while licking ice cream; moving through the car bombing of the Red Brigades in the 1970s; and finally onto a close-up of the moving mouth (but with unheard words) of Silvio Berlusconi. A link between the latter and Lord Capulet is an inescapable idea (although not – one would imagine – an appealing one for Juliet’s young friends, as potential recruits for a Bunga Bunga). The close-up camera shot on a victim of the terrorist atrocities also put the street violence of this story into sharp focus. Often such film clips don’t work in the context they were intended but Pastor’s collaborative team let their images set the scene for each act without overkill.

I wondered how the story of two young lovers and their warring families would work transported through several decades. After all, they meet in 1935, get married in the ’70s and die in the ’90s. Not an unusual chronology for a real life story but this pair journey through it without getting any older! Strangely enough, there was not a moment where this time travel seemed odd and so it is another bold affectation that Pastor applies successfully.

Another unusual twist is to shrink the story into two acts. For those in London likely to be more familiar with the choreography of Kenneth MacMillan (performed regularly at the Royal Opera House), Pastor’s cut between Acts 1 and 2 is in the same place (after the “Balcony” pas de deux; but Acts 2 and 3 of the MacMillan (and other popular versions) are truncated and brought within a single session. Pastor omits a lot of preparatory and peripheral action, so much that it sometimes feels like R&J’s “edited highlights” in the latter part of Act 2 where we have a whistle-stop ride from the “bedroom” pas de deux to the tragic end.

Some characters are omitted altogether. There is no Nurse and neither is there a Paris to act as Juliet’s suitor and get murdered in the crypt: his place is taken by an interview room of young men that Lord Capulet presents for Juliet’s consideration. These excisions from the plot also, of course, mean a parallel editing of Prokofiev’s score, which is sensitively done although it is often surprising to hear much-loved themes in unfamiliar places.

The role of Lord Capulet is the net beneficiary of these changes, aggrandised to show his power and influence and linked to the black-shirted rise of fascism, identified as the colours of the Capulet clan. He alone takes responsibility for portraying the Dance of the Knights theme (an iconic formation dance in MacMillan’s choreography) and Eric Cavallari’s dark, brooding presence is perfect for this elaborated role. Incidentally, Cavallari was born in Brescia (less than 60 km from Verona) which probably makes him ideal casting for a Capulet!

For me, it is the group choreography that glistens in Pastor’s reworking. His fight scenes are particularly well-structured and effective. The counter-balances and reflective flow in body shapes and postures between the Capulets and Montagues establish some especially memorable imagery; and the arm-to-arm combat in the fights between Owen Thorne’s menacing Tybalt and both Mercutio (Daniel Davidson) and Romeo (Christopher Harrison) are exceptionally realised exercises in fast-paced realism, requiring split-second timing from the three performers. Since there is no fight director credited, one must assume that this inventiveness is down to the choreographer himself, in which case he has succeeded where so many have failed.

I was particularly impressed with Davidson’s portrayal, giving some light relief to the darkness of the story by subtly absorbing the whimsical humour in Prokofiev’s themes for Mercutio. Claire Robertson gave a heartfelt, mature interpretation of Juliet’s immense journey over such a short period (even shorter in this cut-down version) and with so much of the preparatory time extracted from the story, she manages still to create a very rounded character. I was less impressed with Christopher Harrison’s Romeo, an interpretation not helped by an almost incognito introduction in Act 1 where it was initially difficult to decide who Romeo was, thus placing an altogether different connotation on the famous line “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Although there is much to admire in Pastor’s interpretation, I found some iconic moments either to be anonymous or flat. The moment that Romeo and Juliet first catch sight of each other was not momentous; the pas de deux and overall design of the “balcony” scene lacked the necessary power and romance; and the portrayal of the tragic end sequence was too rushed to have the necessary emotional impact (although I did like the final dénouement of the two families separating the lovers, after death). Only the “bedroom” pas de deux gave me that rush we associate with this emotional journey and it was the only time that I felt the essential depth of connection between the two principals.

An editor said to me recently that there are “just too many Romeo & Juliets“ and she is certainly not wrong. To find a personal space in this cluttered field, a choreographer needs to be adventurous but also respectful. Pastor’s interesting journey through twentieth century Italy has found just enough in this combination of innovation and tradition to take root and be seen as a successful new addition to this over-flowing roster of choreographies to the Shakespeare/Prokofiev combo.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Sat 17 May
www.sadlerswells.com

Photo: Christina Riley


Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for londondance.com, Dancetabs.com, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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